Benedict honours predecessor’s homeland

REV. RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Poland is making clear he understands his mission as he expressed it in the first public words after his election, spoken from the balcony of St. Peter’s: “After the great John Paul …” He is content to be the one who comes after, and what is “after” is always to be understood in relation to what came before.

When Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, there was already a papal trip on the calendar — to Mexico, which became the first of more than 100 pilgrimages abroad. The first trip of his own planning was to Poland, setting in motion the events that would produce the downfall of the Soviet empire.

When Pope Benedict was elected, he completed the one trip already on the calendar, the visit to Germany last summer. For his own first trip, he chose Poland again, deciding to “follow in the footsteps” of John Paul.

Follow in his footsteps he literally will. Today he will visit John Paul’s hometown Wadowice, go to the shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, where John Paul would often pray over difficult decisions, and to the shrine of Divine Mercy, which he consecrated on his last visit. Tomorrow, Benedict will celebrate Mass in Krakow in the field where John Paul drew the largest crowds in Polish history. John Paul may not yet be declared a saint, but the new Pope is making a pilgrimage to the landmarks of his life.

Yesterday, Benedict said Mass in Warsaw and began his homily with the same words John Paul used to begin his historic Warsaw homily in June, 1979. Later he went to the Shrine of the Black Madonna at Jasna Gora, where John Paul was a frequent pilgrim. And last night, at the Archbishop’s residence in Krakow, John Paul’s former residence, he saluted the young crowds from the window, imitating one of the most dramatic moments of the 1979 trip. Given that Benedict is not the type to climb up spontaneously into windows, its appearance in the official program indicates he wishes to be explicitly understood as the one who follows, the one who comes after.

“I have come to Poland, the beloved homeland of my great predecessor Pope John Paul II, to inhale, as he used to do, this atmosphere of faith in which you live,” Benedict told priests in Warsaw on Thursday. He is there to encourage Poland, where the Roman Catholic faith remains strong, to be a model for a Europe Benedict considers to be in decline.


...if Auschwitz is the Golgotha of our time, it is hard not to see a Providential hand in a German Pope following a Polish pope in preaching a word of reconciliation and mercy in that crucible of evil. It was dramatic enough for a Pole to go to the place of persecution. But it is more dramatic still for the persecutor to go.


“Stand firm in your faith” is the motto he chose for the visit, hoping to persuade Poles that remembering John Paul is not merely nostalgia or national sentiment.

To honour John Paul’s legacy, Benedict is suggesting to live out the demands of the Christian Gospel his predecessor preached. Poland is not immune to many of the pressures that have led to secularization and turmoil in Western Europe.

The Polish pope claimed in 1979 Poland was “a land of particularly responsible witness.” The German Pope yesterday asked for fidelity to that witness by a new, free, European generation: “Cultivate this rich heritage of faith transmitted to you by earlier generations … Stand firm in your faith, hand it down to your children, bear witness to the grace which you have experienced.”

The irony of a German Pope asking the Polish nation for its cultural contribution to Europe is remarkable. The gesture of a German coming to Poland and speaking in Polish is a historic healing of the wounds of the 20th century. That will be most evident tomorrow when Benedict goes to pay homage to victims of the Holocaust and to pray at Auschwitz.

The former concentration camp is part of the territory John Paul governed as archbishop of Krakow. He would later say it was impossible for the bishop who came from such a place not to devote his energies to the defence of the dignity of every human life as having inviolable value, created in the image of God. He spoke of Auschwitz as the “ Golgotha of the modern world” in which man’s rebellion against God took lethal force against God’s chosen people, the Jews.

It is unlikely Benedict will say anything different. But if Auschwitz is the Golgotha of our time, it is hard not to see a Providential hand in a German Pope following a Polish pope in preaching a word of reconciliation and mercy in that crucible of evil. It was dramatic enough for a Pole to go to the place of persecution. But it is more dramatic still for the persecutor to go.

Benedict has stressed that he goes to Auschwitz as a Catholic bishop and not a representative of the German people. Indeed, his family was anti-Nazi, and he was coerced into the Nazi youth and military. But he is who he is, and what he says there tomorrow will be historic.

The Christian conception of history is that the past is never only the past. As Benedict said in Warsaw, adopting the language of St. Augustine, “The confessio peccati, the confession of sins, must always be accompanied by the confessio laudis, the confession of praise.” In Poland, Benedict intends both, but he has come primarily with praise for God and for Poland, and for the man whose footsteps he has taken for his own path.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Benedict honours predecessor’s homeland." National Post, (Canada) May 27, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post


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